Kate Chopin: Defining Feminist Criticism For The New Age Of Literature
The late 1800s to the early 1900s was a time in America where revolutions occurred and where the foundations of feminism were laid. This statement is proven through evidence found in movements, conflicts, politics, and literature of the time period. In particular, when analyzing the author Kate Chopin and her writing, it becomes clear that she played a crucial role in establishing the beginning of a modern feminist movement. Through her pieces, such as The Story of the Hour, she was able to challenge the works of androcentric literature of this time period. Additionally, she was consistently able to exploit the patriarchal domain in the world of literature through the way she conducted herself within her life and stories. Thus, proving herself to be not only one of the founding ‘feminist’ writers but also one of the most extraordinary authors in history.
Although no official name can be placed for this era (the late 1800s–early 1900s), there was a popular idea that a women’s passiveness defined her feminity and self- worth. This became known as the Cult of Domesticity'(Hartman). Women of the middle class were to strive for this ideology through a reflection of purity, piety, and passivity. In a sense, women were needed solely to provide care for children and their family households, in return for the safety, comfort, and financial support provided by their superiors, men. A ‘proper’ lady was seen as fragile beings and thus was kept inside the home, in where she was able to maintain her modesty, along with keeping her opinions to herself, being that any true woman understood that her voice was inferior, insignificant, and unintelligent. In fact, ‘women’s literature of the period was full of advice,’ which held the ‘notion that by keeping a clean, pious home, and filling it with warm and inviting smells, women were reaching their highest calling'(Hartman). Although this era of the domestication of women was considered socially correct, Kate Chopin showed a unique perception of the world with her upbringing and adult life, which repeatedly continued to contradict the social standards. Her contradictions began after she faced ‘an unfortunate tragedy– the untimely death of her husband’ and her mother (American Literature). These deaths left Kate Chopin widowed and alone; with no man to provide for her, she could have been considered as weak and worthless, but Kate Chopin became a ‘talented and prolific short story writer'(American Literature). Kate Chopin’s success was enough to let her provide for herself, something rare for this time period of women, and thus proving her ability to survive without the coddling of a man. What is more, becoming a published writer in this time period was incredibly difficult for women, causing many to forcefully write under a nom de plume. Still, Chopin kept her own femininity apparent by maintaining her first name, ‘Kate.’
In analyzing Kate Chopin’s literature, many themes can be seen to reflect topics that pushed the literary boundaries towards a more feminist view. A clear issue she expanded on was a woman’s own ability to have sexual desires and independence. In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, and the short story, The Storm, she can be seen to express her feelings about a woman’s sexual appetite through the female protagonists Edna and Calixta. In The Awakening, Edna realizes that the traditional societal roles of women have hindered her ability to reach her potential. Thus, Edna is forced through a drastic period of change in her life, or rather, an ‘awakening. Within the novel, Edna states, ‘I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were here to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both’ (Chopin). This statement emulates Edna’s sexual awakening through the adulterous affairs between herself and two men. The concept of women having two lovers was unimaginable in the dated time period, showing Kate Chopin’s daring and profound ability to incorporate such taboo affairs to be genuinely remarkable. As a result, Kate Chopin was able to extend on Edna’s ‘awakening’ and evolve her story into the promotion of an independent women as Edna’s sexual desires lead her to realize that ‘perhaps it [was] better to wake up’ and ‘even to suffer’ rather than being duped ‘to illusions all one’s life’ when she recognized how her previous relationships with the deemed superior gender (men) had hindered her own ability to grow as a strong women(Chopin).
Similarly, The Storm beautifully illustrates Calixta’s intense affair with another man who is forced to take shelter within her home due to a growing storm. Kate Chopin describes the passion felt by Calixta in great depth by writing, ‘they did not heed the crashing torrents and the roar of the elements made her laugh as she lay in his arms,’ unveiling that their passionate love was as powerful as the storm outside. In analyzing the way Kate Chopin describes Calixta’s affair and how the story concludes with, ‘So the storm passed and everyone was happy,’ readers are given a chance to hear the modern feminist voice. Moreover, Kate Chopin eluded to the idea that the affair Calixta experienced was positive, alleviating the unhappiness that she experienced with her marriage, and thus, benefiting the environment around her- a contradiction to the preception of extreme scandal and sin a women’s affair represented in the time period of the story. In short, The Storm and The Awakening brazenly and bravely describe the open-sexuality of independent women, exhibiting Kate Chopin’s ingenious literary ability to create profound and modern stories that challenged patriarchal literature of the time.
In extension to writing openly about an independent woman and her sexual desires, Kate Chopin furthered the push towards feminist criticism within literature by incorporating the oppression of women, by the idea of men’s superiority, within many of her stories. One of her most famous short stories, The Story of an Hour, provides a clear illustration of her opposing the idea of women following the social guidelines of passivity and allowing themselves to become oppressed by their husbands. In this story, Mrs. Mallard learns that her husband has passed due to an unfortunate accident. Initially, she falls into her sister’s arms in weeps but quickly isolates herself to a ‘suspension of intelligent thought’ (Chopin). Mrs. Mallard begins recognizing her husband’s given power to control her for so many years through their marriage. It is this control and manipulation that had attributed in her own weakening of her own self-worth throughout adulthood. In fact, Mrs. Mallard begins to exclaim to herself, ‘free, free, free!’ — vocalizing her joyous relief in being in charge of her own life once again (Chopin). Chopin summarizes Mrs. Mallard’s revelations through writing that from now on, ‘ there would be no powerful will bending [Mrs. Mallard] in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature’. This sentence was brilliantly able to conclude how many women in that day and age were stuck unhappy and powerless in their marriages due to divorces being scandalous and unacceptable. Hence, Kate Chopin, yet again, was able to defy the limits of the androcentric based literature world, allowing her to prove herself as a daring and ingenious author.
Ultimately from the late 1800s to the present time, it is evident that social, political, and cultural ideas have generally evolved towards a standard built upon the goal of reaching equality among men and women. Many men and women proved critical towards the evolution of equality throughout history, including Kate Chopin. Literature from the late 1800s to the early 1900s provided the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas. By redefining what it meant to be a woman within her writing, voicing freely about women’s sexual freedom, independence, and about the oppression many women dealt with being in marriages, Kate Chopin successfully provided the foundations for the popularization and normalization of holding a feminist view. She can be defined as a feminist author, as she challenged the periods’ female construct in her own life and her stories, but nevertheless, should not be limited by this name. Kate Chopin was truly a remarkable author, daring to expose the inner conflicts mothers, wives, and daughters faced and also wrote in a way that reflected pieces of work ‘three-quarters of a century before her time'(Borrici 312). In short, Kate Chopin’s created beautiful pieces of art, and these stories can be continuously celebrated in their profound ability to modernize literature and to reflect a voice of 21st-century feminism.
- Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. Perfection Learning, 2001.
- Chopin, Kate. “The Storm.” Short Stories and Classic Literature, https://americanliterature.com/author/kate-chopin/short-story/the-storm.
- Hartman, Dorothy W. “Lives of Women.” Conner Prairie, https://www.connerprairie.org/educate/indiana-history/lives-of-women/.
- Wyman, Sarah. “The Awakening by Kate Chopin: An Analysis.” Literary Ladies, 17 Jan. 2018, https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/book-reviews/the-awakening-by-kate-chopin-an-analysis/.
- “Kate Chopin”. Short Stories and Classic Literature, American Literature, https://americanliterature.com/author/kate-chopin/bio-books-stories.
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